Tag Archives: Velemir Khlebnikov

Ivan Bunin monument, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.

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I got into the mood for this little excursion today by re-reading a Facebook post that many of my friends posted in recent days. You see, I will unleash a bit of bile myself before this is all over, so we might as well make this whole thing a journey down a ragged road. Actually, I’ll start with my own grievances. They have to do with this monument unveiled by Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov in 1995 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Ivan Bunin’s birth in Voronezh. (For that event this little park located at the meeting of Plekhanovskaya and Ordzhonikidze streets, right in front of the local Oblast court, was renamed Bunin Square.)
Burganov is an ubiquitous sculptor in Moscow. It would appear that he is a good friend of that blight on Moscow culture Zurab Tsereteli, because, after Tsereteli himself, no one seems to get as many commissions to slap up monuments as Burganov. The latter’s work – like so many “official” Russian “public” artists, including Tsereteli and the abominable Soviet-era painter Ilya Glazunov – is simplistic and cartoony. Look at Bunin’s face here; you can’t see a feature anywhere that is not generic. There are the requisite attributes – a beard, cheekbones, ears, a nose, a mustache – but they look like they come from that kids’ game we used to play, remember? the one with the plastic parts of a body and a face that you slapped together on a slick surface to create different images of a human being? Look at the mustache and beard in the second photo below – they’re stuck on there like plastic strips. You almost suspect that if Burganov were to have received a more lucrative assignment while he was working on this one, he could have just used the basic carcass and slapped different features on it in order to have a quick turn-around time.
The dog, we’re told by Russian Wikipedia, symbolizes isolation and the fading of the noble class in Russia… What the hell? I’ll tell you what I think the dog is doing here: Burganov finished the sculpture (or, at least, the drawing and model) with just Bunin sitting there, and he realized, Holy Moses! this is boring! Just at that moment, Burganov’s dog ran up and licked his hand, or he heard a dog bark in the distance – and, voila! the monument was saved. Sort of. It’s like when a theater director doesn’t know how to end a scene and so he just turns the volume of the music up really loud. The dog is like bling. It sprinkles sparkly dust in your eyes so you don’t think too much about how vapid Bunin looks. You can just hear people coming up to the monument:
MAN: Aw! Isn’t he cute?
WOMAN: Coochie-coochie-coo!
MAN: Look at him stretching! Here, let me give him a rub on his butt!
WOMAN: Who is this guy here?
MAN: I dunno. Who cares?
Okay, so I made up the details, but not the essence. This monument succeeds in being pompous and bland all at the same time. That, of course, is an accomplishment, although not one you look for in your public art.
But, enough of that. Let me return to Bunin.

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I don’t know the original source, but the poet Andrei Permyakov posted an informational chart about Ivan Bunin on Facebook on Oct. 23 that really made the rounds. As of midday Oct. 28, it had been “liked” nearly 1700 times and had been “shared” nearly 200 times. (For the record, I include a screen shot of it after the last photo below.) This chart shows 16 nasty comments that Bunin, the 1933 Nobel Prize winner in the field of literature, made about illustrious colleagues.
Isaac Babel was “one of the most despicable heretics.”
Alexander Blok was “an unbearably poetic poet” who “hoodwinks the public with gibberish.”
Vladimir Nabokov was “a charlatan and a phrasemonger (often merely tongue-tied).”
Mikhail Kuzmin was “a pederast with a half-naked forehead and a funereal face painted up like a prostitute’s corpse.”
Mikhail Voloshin was “a fat, curly-haired aesthete.”
Of those Bunin rakes over the coals, the great experimental poet Velemir Khlebnikov seems to have come off relatively well amidst the insults: He was “a rather gloomy youth, silent, perhaps hungover but at least not pretending to be hungover.”
On Andrei Bely: “There’s nothing left to say about his simian furies.”
He wasted few words on Leonid Andreev (“drunken tragedian”) and Maxim Gorky (“monstrous hack”).
Of the 16 targets, only two are women. I don’t know if that means Bunin was more appreciative of women writers or less. In any case:
Marina Tsvetaeva is singled out for her “unending, lifelong flow of wild words and sounds in her poetry.”
Zinaida Gippius was merely “an uncommonly repulsive harpy.”
And to think that a man so bursting in personality, passion and opinion should be condemned to sit forever in front of a court building in his birth town with a blank, empty expression on his face, upstaged by a dog.
God works in wondrous ways.

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Bunin Chart

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Nikolai Aseyev Plaque, Moscow

DSCN1641_2Let me be honest from the start. I don’t know much about Nikolai Aseyev. His name and legacy in my understanding is confused and murky. I remember encountering him when I was a grad student, or before. He first appeared to me as one of the top Russian poets of the 1910s. He was an associate of Boris Pasternak and the Tsentrifuga group of the Futurists. He spent time in the Far East with David Burliuk and Sergei Tretyakov, both fascinating figures in the territory of Russian avant-garde art of the 1920s. He was associated with Vladimir Mayakovsky and later in life (1937-40) wrote a well-known epic poem entitled “Mayakovsky Begins.” It is characteristic, however, that when that poem appeared, a section devoted to the great innovator Velemir Khlebnikov was deleted. There, in a nutshell, you have that confusion in my head about Aseyev: the poet receives a Stalin Prize for his poem about Mayakovsky, but (because he?) agrees to cut out a section he wrote about Khlebnikov. From the late 1920s until his death in 1963 (he was born in 1889, the same year as my grandmother), Aseyev was pretty much a Communist Party functionary by way of literature.

DSCN1642_2And yet, when I pass by this plaque commemorating the fact that Aseyev lived in this building on Kamergersky Pereulok across from the Moscow Art Theater from 1931 to 1963, I can’t help but feel that the connection to his early years – before he lived here – is stronger than the rest. If that’s sentimentality, so be it. I do know that in my mind I do not see him at all as the stoney-gazed, hard-jaw figure depicted on this plaque.

DSCN1640_2 DSCN1643_2I don’t know which windows Aseyev looked out of when he took the time to do so. If you look carefully at the top photo here, however, you will see that a statue of Anton Chekhov, peering out from behind a restaurant umbrella, keeps a constant eye on those perusing the Aseyev plaque… Chekhov wasn’t there when Aseyev lived here.